The Fall of East Aleppo: Strategic Gain or Pyrrhic Victory for Assad?

Over recent weeks we have seen a major advance by the forces of the Syrian regime and its allies into opposition East Aleppo, in the wake of a protracted and devastating bombardment of the city. The situation that has resulted from these moves and their longer-term implications remain unclear – partly because of the inevitable “fog war” but also because of the deluge of disinformation being disseminated by the Russian military and regime supporters, both East and West. Let’s start with the question of numbers.

How many people are there in East Aleppo?

Official figures provided both by the United Nations and the East Aleppo authorities (Civil Defence and Aleppo Council) placed the population of East Aleppo at 250 -275,000 . The UN persisted with this figure until recently, but is now suggesting that there are “up to 100,000” civilians remaining in opposition areas of the old city and just over 30,000 who have left. The leader of the opposition council in Aleppo, Brita Hagi Hasan, in a recent interview with a French newspaper, gave a figure of 150,000. The discrepancy between these current figures and the previous ones can probably be explained by the large flight of people from the bombing of the city earlier this year, which the UN  may have seriously underestimated.

How many people are leaving East Aleppo and where are they going?

Again, there are a lot of figures flying around – the highest one being 50,000, which seems to have originated with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and was picked up by many media sources. But the SOHR has put out conflicting numbers at various points in time. A more reliable statistic comes from the UN agencies, who agreed on a figure of 31, 500 a week ago. Of these 18, 000 had gone to regime controlled West Aleppo, 8500 to the YPG controlled area of Sheikh Maqsoud, and 5000 had moved to other areas within East Aleppo. The Russians are claiming that a further 50,000 have fled in the past week; there is certainly some further movement of people, but the reports on the ground do not suggest anything like this number – they show various groups of at most a few hundred people on the move – indeed, this is exactly what Russian monitoring cameras have captured.

What influences people’s decision on whether and where to go?

Again, a difficult question. For most it will be a matter of pragmatism: where are the nearest safe (or safer) areas? where do they have family connections?. The significant movement into the YPG’s Sheikh Maqsoud district seems to have been from adjacent areas, and most of these people have now returned to their homes as these areas have come under YPG control. For some it may be political – interviews have shown that there are pro-regime families who found themselves stranded in opposition areas and are happy to move into regime-controlled territory (these are the cases highlighted by the regime media); and probably most of those who have chosen to move into other opposition areas, have done so for political reasons. Those living in areas captured militarily by the regime have had no choice – they have been transported to regime holding areas, where men of military age have been detained for interrogation.

The UN Human Rights Council has reported that in some areas armed groups have killed people who have protested against their continuing presence, naming two groups guilty of this – Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra) and the Abu Amara battalion (associated with Ahrar al-Sham). Aleppo council leader Brita Hagi Hasan, in an interview with a French newspaper rather side-stepped a question about this, saying only that “we have no problem with the Free Syrian Army”.

The regime’s gains

There is no doubt that the regime and its allies have gained the upper hand in military terms. Several commentators early on in the offensive talked about it “splitting” the opposition held districts of the city – but if you look at the maps of the conflict it looks to be more of a progressive peeling away of opposition held territory like an onion, starting at the outer layer and working inwards.

This is one of the reasons that the initial advance of regime forces was so rapid – they began at the outer edge of rebel territory – which were areas like Hanano that had suffered the most destruction from bombing, were most depopulated, and therefore provided relatively open terrain for the deployment of the better equipped, Iranian-led forces.

The problem with this “onion” is that the going gets tougher for the attackers as they move further towards the centre, where defending forces are more concentrated and better prepared. While there are a lot of sweeping claims being made by Russia and the regime, the fact is that the regime ground offensive has come to a halt with opposition forces still hanging on in a compact area in the south of the city – and there may be as many as 100,000 civilians with them. Reports coming out from these districts indicate that they are under continual, intense bombardment, and recently have been subjected to attacks with chlorine gas and phosphorous.

The position of the remaining armed groups, however, is untenable as they are surrounded and their supply routes cut off. Their only hope is that they will be able to trade the regime’s desire for a quick, symbolic victory against the rebel’s capacity for messy resistance on their home ground. The Russians are likely to recognise this and we may well see some sort of evacuation deal being struck quite soon (there is a report of such a deal being negotiated just coming in).

The outcome of such a settlement will be that the focus of the Syrian conflict is likely to shift to Idlib and parts of North Aleppo, where there are large opposition communities   already under heavy bombardment by the Russians and the regime.

aleppo-map
Shrinking opposition territory in East Aleppo 1-8 December

A Pyrrhic Victory?

From the point of view of the Assad regime this may well prove to be a rather hollow “victory”. They will emerge from it with an enhanced security position and a stronger claim to be in command of the whole country than they have had for several years, but these gains have been bought at the cost of becoming an increasingly marginal player in determining the future of Syria.

On the military front the Aleppo operation has been led by Iranian-commanded foreign militia. On the political front Russia seems to have taken over the management of the conflict and its social effects  – it is the Russian Ministry of Defence’s “Centre for the Reconciliation of Opposing Sides in the Syrian Arab Republic” that oversees local surrenders and evacuations; it is Russia which carries out de-mining of occupied areas; and it is Russia that is very demonstrably providing food and medical aid to the internally displaced (Russia seem to be playing a double game here, attacking the UN and western governments for failing to provide aid while blocking the admission of much aid so that it can conduct its own “hearts and minds” programme ­ – but also accepting UN assistance when it suits them: for example, the city’s water pumping station has only been able to resume operations with fuel provided by UNICEF.)

While the regime may take control of former opposition districts, the YPG has taken the opportunity to extend their control from Sheikh Maqsoud to more than three other districts, complicating the ability of the regime to impose its full control over the city.

To top it off, there is a severe social crisis brewing in Aleppo. The Syrian regime has inherited a city half of which has been absolutely shattered; they have over 30,000 dispossessed people to support, most of whom have been moved to two derelict industrial sites in Jibreen on the outskirts of the city. These centres are completely overloaded, and conditions are so bad there that some families have been moved to Hanano , despite the widespread destruction of that area. The regime has described this as “returning the people of Hanano to their homes” but according to the UN:

people currently sheltering in Hanano cannot collectively be counted as returnees as … only 20 per cent of them are originally from the area, while 80 per cent are currently squatting in abandoned houses. Despite the recent influx, Hanano is not deemed a safe area for shelter due to unexploded remnants of war in the area, and many buildings being at risk of collapse due to infrastructural damage.

All of this is in addition to a large population of displaced persons already present in West Aleppo, which the UN suggests may number as many as 400, 000, 77,000 of whom are living in “unfinished buildings or collective shelters.”

If we add to this the fact that a study of Aleppo in 2013/14 found a significant level of hostility to the regime in West Aleppo (in many districts 20 to 40% of the residents believed that “the Assad regime is the greatest threat to Syria ”) then it seems likely that the “order” imposed on Aleppo will be a highly repressive one in both parts of the city (five restless Western districts have been under the direct governance of the notorious Air Force Security since 2012.)

One of the centres for displaced people in Aleppo

Russia’s strategy and future prospects

I have argued in the past that Russia had little real leverage over the Assad regime (they could not afford to abandon Assad even if he refused to go along with their plans). But Aleppo may have altered that significantly: the regime is now dependent on Russia to a greater degree and in more ways than ever before. Russia will not want to get bogged down in a conflict for which there is no apparent end point, and may now start to craft its own exit strategy and press the regime to fall in line. Scott Lucas of EAWorldView has suggested that the Russians may try to impose  a de facto partition of Syria that would leave the opposition in control of Idlib and Assad in power in the rest of the country (and Russia’s naval and airforce bases intact). There is, however, an alternative possibility, hinted at by the pro-Russian site South Front: Russia could use Idlib as a bargaining counter with both the regime and the opposition in order to produce its preferred solution to the conflict – a “national unity” government presided over by Assad but with some form of opposition participation. In this scenario the Syrian opposition would be told that unless it agrees, the military onslaught on Idlib will be stepped up; and the regime will be told that if it doesn’t acquiesce Russia will pull back and leave it to deal with a huge reconstruction bill and a rebellious province on its own.

I don’t claim any official standing for South Front, which is a blatant propaganda operation, but it does have clear Russian patronage and may have some connections to Russian policy networks. Whatever the case, such a strategy makes sense from the Russian point of view and would seem to be the only way they can move towards an outcome that would meet their longstanding objective.

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